Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Sword Of Rhiannon (aka Sea-Kings Of Mars)

The Sword Of Rhiannon, by Leigh Brackett
No date stated (1963?)
(Original Ace edition, 1953)

First published as a “complete novel” under the title “Sea-Kings of Mars” in the June, 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories (which can be found at The Internet Archive), this Leigh Brackett planetary romance came out in paperback as The Sword Of Rhiannon in 1953, as the flipside of an Ace Double, the other side of which was Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Conqueror (aka The Hour Of The Dragon). This edition is a standalone paperback reprint. 

Unlike Brackett’s later expansions of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon Of Mars,” this is a straight-up reprint of the original ’49 pulp version, only with a new title and minus the illustrations (of which there were only a few, anyway, so no big loss). It runs to just a bit over 120 pages in this Ace edition, though with some very small, very dense print. The back cover compares Brackett to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it isn’t mere hyperbole, as The Sword Of Rhiannon is basically Brackett’s version of Burroughs’s Barsoom novels. (And as for this new title, Brackett stated that Ace made the change, fearing that “Mars” in the title would scare off savvy sci-fi readers who knew there was no life on Mars…)

As for one thing that has been added to this Ace edition – that would be typos. This edition of The Sword Of Rhiannon is littered with typos, more than even the average Leisure Books publication. Indeed, this book has my favorite typo OF ALL TIME. Early in the original Thrilling Wonder Stories edition, there is the line “The women screamed like harpies.” Folks, in this Ace edition, that line appears on page 20, and it’s rendered as: “The women screamed like hairpies.” (Italics mine.) I kid you not! But that’s just the most egregious example. As mentioned, practically every page has a typo of some sort, so the copy editor must’ve really been hitting the sauce that day.

Anyway, this Brackett yarn doesn’t feature her recurring protagonist Eric John Stark; our hero is an archeologist named Matt Carse who is about as cipherlike as you could get. Seriously, we learn hardly a single thing about him, other than that he’s 35, an “Earthman” by birth, and has lived on Mars for 30 years. Apparently he lost his archeologist creds due to some tomb-raiding or somesuch. He’s got blond hair and the rugged good looks expected of a pulp hero; he’s also apparently damn good with a sword, though how he got to be that way is unexplained.

In fact when we meet him Carse is coming out of some tavern on Mars where he presumably took some illegal substances; he’s approached by a native thief, who claims to have found something almost mythical: the Sword of Rhiannon, the “Cursed One” who ran afoul of the old gods of Mars ages upon ages ago. Rhiannon’s tomb has been sought for untold eons, yet this random thief has stumbled upon it, and wants Carse’s help to sell off the priceless artefacts within. As ever Brackett captures a ghostlike, haunted Mars as the two venture to the desolate location of the tomb in the dead of the Martian night.

In the hidden tomb Carse finds a glowing orb of black energy; into this he’s shoved by the turncoat thief, who resents Carse’s unwillingness to give him a fair share of the ensuing profits. This orb turns out to be a sort of captured black hole, and long story short, Carse is shoved across the millennia – and comes out into a Mars of one million years ago. In Brackett’s solar system, Mars has an incalculably ancient history; even the so-called “New” cities, like the New Valkis in which Carse finds himself at story’s beginning (a location featured in “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs” and other Brackett yarns), are thousands upon thousands of years old.

What’s interesting about The Sword Of Rhiannon is that Brackett basically wrote about a different planet; the Mars of a million years ago is vastly different than the one Carse knows. It is an ocean-filled sort of paradise populated by beings that not only don’t exist in Carse’s time, but aren’t even remembered. Whereas New Valkis in Carse’s time was an ancient city on the outskirts of even-more-ancient Old Valkis, all of it surrounded by vast desert, “Valkis” is just Valkis here and there is ocean everywhere.

As in the incredible Stark novella “Enchantress Of Venus,” Brackett gives this ocean some cool, psychedelic touches – it’s phosphorescent, glowing white, and even has healing powers. However it burns upon initial contact. Anyway, Carse is suitably smackjawed by his trip through the ages, initially disbelieving the reality of the situation, but in true pulp fashion Brackett doesn’t belabor this too much. Within a few pages Carse is accepting of his new reality and enduring the rigors of this strange new world.

Luckily as an archeologist he’s fluent in the High Martian which is spoken here, though his accent makes others think he’s a barbarian – Brackett again paying subtle tribute to her writing hero Robert E. Howard. This different Mars has different peoples, ones Carse has never even heard of – “Halflings,” of which there are Swimmers, who are seal-human hybrids, with fine hair on their faces and bodies; the Sky Folk, who are basically like the Hawkmen of Flash Gordon; and finally the Dhuvians, aka the Serpent Men: these are hated and feared by all Martians, and they’re also the reason why Rhiannon is known as “the Cursed One,” as ages ago he taught the evil Serpent Men the science secrets of his people, Rhiannon being one of the Quiru, “hero gods who were human but superhuman.”

Brackett faithfully follows the “planetary romance” guidelines: before you know it, Carse is shackled up, alongside his new sort-of colleague, the portly thief Boghaz, who serves as the book’s comedic relief. And Brackett’s so good, the stuff with Boghaz is funny, and he isn’t the sort of comedic relief you hope gets gutted before story’s end, like for example the loser in Conan The Destroyer. Tall, brawny, blond Carse is accused of being a Khondor spy by the Jikkharans who live in this city which is part of the Sark Empire – the fact that Carse hasn’t heard of any of these places or people doesn’t much help him.

He’s conscripted into slave-duty on a Sark warship, one that’s bound to carry Ywain, daughter of the emperor, to the capital city of Sark. Ywain is one of those “bad Brackett babes” familiar from previous stories – a mega-beauty with raven hair and a malicious spirit; so evil, in fact, that a “black nimbus” seems to surround her. She wears tight black mail, showing off her incredible curves. Carse, spying her from the veritable dungeons of the rowing pit, instantly sees how cruel and vicious she is – but boy, she sure is hot. “It would be good to tame this woman,” he tells himself, a sentiment that would’ve been par for the course in the world of the pulps but which of course would trigger the overly-sensitive types of today.

Carse gets his chance when he causes a mutiny, he and Boghaz taking Ywain captive – this after Carse, as if his mind were temporarily possessed by another, has killed off the cloaked Dhuvian mentor Ywain keeps in a darkened inner room. Brackett amps the hate-lust that brims between Carse and Ywain, with Carse almost killing Ywain as well, but settling with a sock to the face that leaves her with a permanent facial scar – it pleases him that he has left his mark on her. Ywain leaves her own, later; when Carse impulsivey kisses her in “anger,” she bites his inner lip.

Another interesting difference between Brackett’s day and our own is the utter lack of sentimentalism. Onboard the war galley the Sarks keep a few Halflings, among them a pair of Swimmers and also a birdman whose wings have been broken in a typical display of Sark sadism. After the mutiny Carse and his ship of loyal followers are approached by a formation of Sky Folk; as they leave, the one on the ship with the broken wings despondently watches them fly away. As Carse and the others are busy with other stuff, the maimed birdman tosses himself into the ocean, drowning himself. If this tale had been written today, Carse no doubt would dive right in after him, pull him out, and there would follow a bunch of “Your life is worth it! You’re important!” sappiness. Instead, Carse and his fellows basically shrug and deem that the birdman’s suicide was “for the best!” 

Khondor turns out to be the country of the Sea Kings, a confederation of city-states opposed to the Sark Empire. But even here Carse can’t catch a break; the viking-like warriors of Khondor also distrust Carse, and put him through various trials. This is mostly due to Emer, the pretty, blonde, Cassandra-like sister of King Rold; Emer, who has spent so much time with the Halflings that she has sort of picked up their ESP via osmosis, instantly detects something unusual about Carse. Not only that he is from “another world,” but that he is possessed – by the Cursed One.

I’ll tell you another reason why Brackett was such a great writer: she understood the all-important pulp dictum that the bad girl is always better than the good girl. Initially I feared that Emer was going to be set up as Carse’s lady…after all, she has all the typical prerequisites, from being good-natured to blonde-haired. But she’s barely in the novel. Instead, Brackett wisely puts the focus on Ywain, with Rold’s gruff advisor even accusing Carse of being in “love” with her, due to how Carse keeps insisting that the people of Khondor not immediately put Ywain to death, like they want to.

We learn in another psychedelic-ish sequence that Carse is indeed possessed by Rhiannon, who subtly invaded Carse’s mind when Carse stepped into that black time-tunnel bubble. It was Rhiannon who guided Carse’s hand when he killed the Serpent Man on Ywain’s ship. Rhiannon, speaking through Carse, insists that he has changed his ways in the eons of his imprisonment, and wants to aid the Sea Kings in their battle against Sark, and also he wants to destroy the Dhuvians. But no one will listen to him, least of all Carse, who wants the undead Rhiannon out of his brain, posthaste. There’s some good stuff here with Emer frightened of the Rhiannon in Carse, but Ywain sort of liking it.

The finale sees the united Sea Kings about to be doomed in a battle against Sark, with Rold and his fellows taken captive. Carse pretends to be Rhiannon in the flesh, Boghaz his frightened accomplice; they steal Ywain as barter material and make off on Carse’s war galley. The men aboard are still his loyal followers, even though Khondor has sentenced him to death. More good stuff with Ywain possibly being hip to the fact that Rhiannon is really Carse – even up to admiting to “Rhiannon” that she might not’ve minded it when Carse kissed her, after all.

However, the brevity necessary of pulp sort of harms The Sword Of Rhiannon in the homestretch; Carse succeeds in getting into the Tomb of Rhiannon, finding all sorts of bizarre weapons which he hopes to use against Sark and the Dhuvians (that is, if he can figure out how to operate them!). But he is captured by the Serpent Men, who of course easily figure out that Carse is just pretending. But then Rhiannon really does assume control of Carse, and Brackett doles out the “climactic action” in like two pages, Rhiannon wiping out everyone, destroying all his weaponry (which appears to harness the powers of the sun), and basically dismantling the Sark Empire. It’s so harried that it lacks much dramatic impact, and of course it’s further harmed by the fact that our hero, Matt Carse, is sort of on mental vacation while it’s happening.

But Brackett never loses sight of the characters – the reader is as thrilled as Carse to detect that Ywain seems to have grown concerned for Carse during all this, particularly when it looked like he was about to be killed by the Dhuvians. Turns out Ywain, while she harbors no regrets for ruling her people with an iron hand, never much liked the Serpent Men, and resented her father, the emperor of Sark, for making her be so damn evil all the time. Once Sark has been defeated and the Dhuvians all killed, it’s time for Carse to go – Rhiannon has promised to show him the way. The reader is not surprised when Ywain announces her wish to go along with Carse, to his own era: the Mars she knew is now dead, and she has no desire to rule a now-powerless Sark.

Off the new couple goes to Carse’s future Mars, the desert world so familiar from Brackett’s other yarns, and in a fitting but quick finale we see that Ywain will have no problems adapting. While this is a perfectly self-contained story, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more stories with these two characters (they could’ve even run into Eric John Stark!). As usual Brackett makes you care about her characters – as mentioned, even minor characters like Boghaz, who would be annoying in most other such tales, shine with their own memorable personalities.

Brackett’s writing is as polished as ever, with that word painting she does so well; the phosphorescent sea of Mars in particular makes an impression. In fact Brackett’s writing is so good, and her world so fully realized, that it wasn’t until after I finished that I realized not much really happens in The Sword Of Rhiannon. I mean sure, the main character is thrust a million years into the past and all…but really, he’s thrown on a war galley, mistreated in various ways, and eventually bluffs his way into freedom – not once but a few times. Action stuff, as would be expected in such a tale, isn’t as constant as you might think…in fact, the cover of this Ace edition is very misleading, and likely was done for something else, as there are no bald, elf-eared characters in the entire book!

Little-known fact: This novel actually provided the inspiration for the Fleetwood Mac song “Rhiannon.” Okay, I made that up.


Zwolf said...

The real inspiration for Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" was a horror novel called Triad, by Mary Leader. I mention it only because it's some of the useless information I've managed to pick up via happenstance. (I never read Triad, but I did start reading Salem's Children by the same author once, and got annoyed by all the Celtic names in it... people's fascination with those bewilders me).

Anyway, great review, as usual. And, here's a really good version of that Fleetwood Mac song... (Most people will hate it, but most people are stupid! :) Anything can be improved by screaming and feedback)

Matthew said...

“It would be good to tame this woman,” he tells himself, a sentiment that would’ve been par for the course in the world of the pulps but which of course would trigger the overly-sensitive types of today."----

A lot of things in Brackett would annoy Feminists, oddly. Her hardboiled novel "No Good from a Corpse" the main character slaps around women all the time. I don't, however, think that she would stand for such behavior. I think she just knew fiction was fiction and no need to get offended.

Corpse was the novel that got Howard Hawks to hire her to adapt The Big Sleep. It's not her best work IMO.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! Zwolf, that's crazy about the truth behind the Fleetwood Mac song...I was just making a lame joke, had no idea the song was really inspired by a novel! And I agree about Celtic names getting annoying...though Leigh Brackett herself was, according to her husband, "obsessed" with them...

Gene Phillips said...

i enjoyed the paperback over 30 years ago, and gave it a re-read recently. It's very inventive but it's far from Brackett's best work. I'd even say it's too inventive, a case of two many narrative irons in the fire.

Carse is indeed a cypher, but Brackett gave him one memorable line. At the start of the novel he lets himself be guided to a supposed treasure-trove by some whiny native guide. Once they're there, Carse tells the guide that he plans to take the lion's share of the loot. When the guide asks why, Carse says, "Because I'm the lion."

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Gene, and you are right -- that is a great line! I have more Brackett reviews on the way...she has become one of my favorites ever.